Monday, November 26, 2012

Cover me in four places

The subject of this post is a song that, since its first release, was dying for a cover. In fact the original band had 2 more cracks at it over the course of their career.

Throw Your Arms Around Me by Hunters and Collectors was originally released as a single in 1984. However when it appeared two years later on the band’s 3rd album, Human Frailty, it was re-recorded and re-released as a single.

He never names the four places

(Note that I couldn’t dig up a copy of the 1984 version, but this one is most people are referring to when they say the “original” – if you have a link to the 84 version, please put it in the comments).

In 1990, when it came time for the band to release a compilation of Collected Works they re-recorded it a second time, slightly slower:

I bet the bridge of her nose is one of them

Either version of this song (and they really are quite similar) is an “Oz Rock” classic. Every guy with a guitar and a campfire can, and will, sing it. But I was never a huge fan. It has a certain feel to it, musically, that a lot of Australian Rock from the 80s had, which I have never liked. People call it “raw” but to me it just feels a bit empty and hollow. And I’m not sure if Mark Seymour is deliberately singing bum notes in some of the verses but I physically wince a couple of times with how off key he is. (Again, maybe that’s part of the “raw” but I just don’t get it).

So it will come as no surprise that I much prefer this version of the song, performed by the Australian comedy trio The Doug Anthony All-Stars, made up of guitarist Richard Fidler, tall guy Tim Ferguson (who isn’t actually that tall) and lead singer Paul McDermott.

(Audio quality isn’t great, but beggars can’t be choosers)

I will admit to some bias here, as I loved DAAS from the moment they burst on to my TV screen in ABC TVs The Big Gig in 1989. They had a mix of satire, irreverence, abuse, immaturity and sweet harmonies that appealed to me instantly. I’ve been to see them multiple times, and own a couple of their albums. The above live cover comes from their 1994 album Dead & Alive (which also contained such lovely tracks as Skinhead Sooty and I Fuck Dogs).

What I like about this version is that it doesn’t feel at all empty. They are only 3 voices and a 12 string acoustic, but there’s a real depth to the sound. There is passion in the voices – and although there is probably more passion in Seymour’s voice there is strength behind the passion in this version. Which is odd, as there’s not a lot of expression on their faces. They are singing this, as they did with a lot of their serious songs, “altar boy” style. Standing up straight, looking forward (or slightly upward) and hands still.

Most live shows that DAAS did had one serious song, nestled among their other ruder works. This song was Dead & Alive’s and for the 3 or so minutes it took everything stopped and the atmosphere changed. Then the show continued. It was partly because it was unexpected and incongruous that it has such an effect. But, even when it stands alone - not contrasted against the rest of their material, it is still an amazing version.It is a pity, then, that Paul McDermott went on to milk this song for all it was worth, to the point where it became as much a standard for him as it did for the original band.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Guest Post: Smells like a cover

This very first guest post was written by my friend Haraash. We have known each other for just over 10 years, and although I wanted to cut the linkg to my own crappy cover at the end, he made me promise I wouldn’t.

The classic Nirvana song Smells Like Teen Spirit, sung by front man Kurt Cobain (who later realised he was so depressed he committed suicide) was seen by many as the theme song of a generation of moody, depressed, pretentious teens in the early 90s.

Released in 1991 it led the charge for grunge rock bands - in particular those from Seattle. I'm not from Seattle, I'm actually from Melbourne, Australia, but 1991 was a particularly important year for me as it was my final year of secondary school. And strangely enough whilst this song was just a wee bit popular it really didn't resonate with me; I suspect I was happy.

However, it really came to my notice a few years later when I heard Tori Amos's cover of it. I've always been a Tori Amos fan, her gorgeous voice accompanying magnificent piano has always delighted me. So when I heard her version I immediately got a hold of the original and not only compared them but began to appreciate the original a whole lot more than I had.

I find it somewhat interesting that a cover, and a really good cover - in that it was unique and nothing at all like the original - actually made me enjoy the original more than I ever had. Even now I still like to listen to Nevermind, the album on which Smells Like Teen Spirit originally appeared, from time to time.

In the end though, the Tori Amos version is still my preferred version, but I'm a sucker for Tori Amos.

On a final note, this blog's owner inspired me to write this brief guest entry because today I heard his own brief cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit on ukulele, and frankly it's pretty damn good!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

So you think you can cover me and spit in my eye?

It’s funny how people leave the big ones alone. There is a song that constantly tops various “all time” charts. It covers a number of different musical styles, and is widely regarded as an important piece of rock music history. [citation needed]
Even its film clip was iconic.
Supposedly the “first” film clip made.
But there has never been what I would call a serious cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, at least not one released as a single, and I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly the status of the song as an icon would discourage any covers. It’s a big ask to take a legendary song and produce a cover of it. This is also the reason we haven’t seen serious covers of Stairway to Heaven, Hey Jude or Satisfaction.
Another obvious reason, more specific to this song, is that it is technically challenging. It showcases the whole range of Queen’s abilities: choral, ballad, hard rock and everything in between. To do a cover of this song would take some effort. Even Queen, when performing live, would not attempt the whole song. To do even a half decent version of it, especially live, you would need a whole cast of backup singers, musicians and stage technicians to pull it off. Not to mention a skin coloured body suit to make it look like your boob was showing.
I actually don’t mind this version by Pink, although I can see why it wasn’t released as a single. It’s a little too faithful, wandering into the “pointless cover” territory. However as a live track it’s great. I love the Freddie tribute that went into her costume.
So that leaves us with the other kind of cover: the novelty cover. Now the same reasons that make “serious” people leave this alone become the reasons that “less serious” people are attracted to it. There have been a number of novelty covers of this song, all of which have their own merits.
On every one of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s albums, along with his parody hits and his original songs, he sings a medley of songs performed as a polka. But on Alapolooza there was an extra surprise:
Any way the wind, any way the wind, any way the wind blows–HEY!
I personally think this shows off Yankovic’s talents as an accordion player as well as an arranger. It’s really quite incredible.
But he certainly wasn’t the first. In 1983, a year before Spinal Tap, the guys from the Young Ones created a band, Bad News, which was a parody of English Heavy Metal. A few years later they released an album, with this as it’s primary single:
Blow Queen off the stage
What I love about this is that the album that this came from was produced by Queen guitarist Brian May, and I have always suspected that it’s him playing that perfectly wrong solo.
A couple of years ago Jake Shimabukuro performed this at a TED Talk:
You can tell he’s a knob because of the way he pronounced ukulele
I’m putting this in the novelty category because, despite the protestations of its proponents, the ukulele is a novelty instrument. Again this is technically incredible. But it’s still a song performed on a ukulele.
And, finally, there is this:
I see a little silhouetto of a clam
I found out about this amazing track from Queen’s official mailing list, and I think it is the original musical track from the master tapes used as a backing.
I have loved the Muppets for longer than I have loved Queen, and now that I am a grown-up I still love them, and they touch that bit in me that makes me all misty eyed. I can’t explain it but every time I listen to this version of this great song, I get a little something in my eye.  There is something about the way they all look at the camera and sing “any way the wind blows” at the end that just gets me.
But none of these, serious or silly, faithful or interpretive, are as great as the original (although the Muppet one comes close). Each of the covers would be meaningless without the original as the context. None of them would stand up as a track in their own right.
But each is paying tribute to an act you can tell that they love.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

When is a cover not a cover?

Picture the scene. A popular song-writing duo writes a song for another band, who have been struggling to get into the charts. That song is released and does quite well. Then, only three weeks after the song is released the guys who wrote the song release their own version of it, although only as an album track.

Well all this happened in 1963. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote I Wanna Be Your Man in the corner of the Rolling Stones’ studio, and the Stones went on to record it.

I wanna be a top 20 single, baby.

It was released on 1st of November, 1963, reached number 12 and was the Stones’ first top 20 single. But only three weeks later it appeared on the Beatles’ second album, sung (mainly) by Ringo Starr.

I wanna be your cover, baby.

Given the simplicity of the song, and the general music of the time, they are different versions, and both bands bring their own flavour to it. The Rolling Stones make it sound like a Rolling Stones song, and The Beatles make it sound like a Beatles song. For the most part this is an important aspect to a cover. If a band can make it sound like they wrote the song, then it has in some way succeeded.

I’ve never much cared for the Rolling Stones, though. I like Paint It Black, mainly because I loved Tour Of Duty, the 80s Vietnam TV series which used that as its theme song. And so their version of I Wanna Be Your Man, being one that sounds so much like a song they might write, doesn’t really do it for me. The slidey guitar thing they do, the fact that it’s slightly slower and Mick’s voice all add up to something that simply doesn’t appeal to me.

The Beatles version, on the other hand, seems brighter, and boppier. It seems like he does, actually, wanna be her man. It’s easily my preferred version.

It’s interesting to me that the chords are slightly different between the two versions. The Beatles version stays on the same chord throughout the whole verse, whereas the Stones version alternates between two chords. I wonder which way it was originally written and I wonder who changed it for their version and why.

But the big question is: which version is the cover? Usually the band who first releases a song gets the right to call it the “original” recording. And as I have discussed in other posts, that original recording comes with certain responsibilities. It is the version that all other versions are compared to. The definitive version. But if someone writes a song but gives it to someone else, do they also hand over the right to claim the “original” tag?

Quite simply, yes. The original version of I Wanna Be Your Man is the Rolling Stones version, regardless of who wrote it. The Beatles version is the cover. So it is completely coincidental that it is also the superior version.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

When she gets weary…

In 1991, the Australian rock band The Screaming Jets had 3 top 40 singles, including Better which reached number 4 position. Their debut album reached number 2 in the album charts. They were really quite a big deal at the time. (How big a deal? Well, they toured with Ugly Kid Joe, and we all remember how huge they were). They certainly didn’t need the “instant audience” assistance that a cover would bring them. So it may seem odd that their second album included a cover, which was released as a single. What is even odder is that the song they covered, while a cult hit, was certainly not a mainstream commercial success. It was, however, a defining song of the Australian underground music scene (back when underground meant that less people actually heard your stuff).

Shivers by the Boys Next Door was released in 1979 and represents the first mark that frontman Nick Cave would make on the Australian underground scene. Now I must say, I have had an interesting relationship with Nick’s music over the years. There are albums of his that I absolutely love, some that I admire but don’t actually listen to, and others that I really don’t like. But I have such respect for him that those albums I dislike actually anger me, because they are so bad and I know he can, and should, do better.

But this song, which incidentally was not actually written by him, is a corker. The music is hollow and distant and yet driving. Nick sounds like he’s crying all the way through it. It basically created the template for a career steeped in melodrama, depressing imagery and lyrics which sound deep if you want to think of them that way. “You know my baby? She’s so vain she is almost a mirror. I know, right? And there’s this weird thing that happens when you say her name so, you know, please don’t.” According to wikipedia, the opening line about suicide meant that the song was banned on a number of radio stations, which almost guarantees a certain class of audience.

The Screaming Jets were certainly not aiming for that same audience at the peak of their career. I can only assume they covered the song simply because they liked it.

We could make a humidor out of our love

Which only makes me wonder why they decided it should sound as much like Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn as possible. I can almost hear the guitarist saying “I could do some lonesome distorted bluesy thing” and the drummer jumping up and saying “yeah! and then I can come in with a tasty little roll before the chorus!” and then they’d all give each other high fives. However when it comes down to it, they turned the song into a typical rock ballad which, given they were a typical rock band, is not that surprising.

What is surprising is that they released the song with mistakes in the lyrics. (Or perhaps they are “improvements”. I’m not sure which of these choices annoys me more.) I’ll leave it to you to find them, but the changes either don’t rhyme or are nonsensical. It’s one thing to get the lyrics wrong on a live recording (as with the REM cover posted earlier) but to rehearse, record and then release a song with incorrect lyrics is unforgivable, and takes this cover from the merely “bad” category to the “I deserve a medal for having to listen to this multiple times while writing this post” category.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jedward and upward

Australia has been generally  unaware of the musical stylings of the Irish twins "Jedward". Those that follow Eurovision might recognise them as the rather impressive water feature from this year’s contest.

would make a addition to a modern garden.I myself became aware of them a while ago, through various UK people retweeting some of their more bizarre and koan-like tweets (e.g. “You know what we want? We want to go to the Super Bowel we hear that it's the biggest bowel in the world and we have a lot of Cereal!”). You’re never quite sure if they are taking the piss, are quite daft or are really very deep.

Jedward gained prominence on the UK version of the talent show X-Factor by, like many talent show acts, singing covers. Their first single was a cover. In fact, of the eleven songs on their debut album Planet Jedward, all eleven of them are covers.

All of them.

While I could choose any of these, I have decided to look at their second single: a cover of Blink 182’s All the Small Things.

This song was a huge hit for Blink 182, being their first song to take the number one spot. It was itself the second single from 1999’s Enema of the State which marked a small but significant change of direction for the band. Much like Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, or even Nirvana’s Nevermind, it was musically similar to earlier albums by the band, however was produced with a wider radio audience in mind. The guitars were crisp and clear, the voices and harmonies polished. You could tell it was well rehearsed. There were also a couple of slower, more thoughtful songs. It was, therefore, seen by their fans as something of a sell-out. This was reflected in the clip for this song. The band are seen dressed as members of various 90s boy bands - complete with slow motion wind machine shots and screaming (mainly) girly fans. But if you listen, without watching the clip, it still a 90s California punk-rock song at heart.

So how would a 21st century pop duo interpret this song? Quite simply, they don’t.

Say it ain’t so

Jedward’s cover of All the Small Things is a note for note identical version of the song. The music and arrangement is exactly the same as the original (with the addition of some keyboards). The major difference is in the vocals and that is because Jedward can’t actually sing very well. (Other acts with Jedward’s level of talent would rely heavily on auto-tuning, and it is a testament that, from all available evidence, they don’t.)

This track epitomises the pointless cover. There is no artistic value in it whatsoever. It is purely a money making venture - an easy way to get these twins on the radio and into people heads. Blink 182 (or at the very least Tom DeLonge) would have received some income from the sales and there is some argument that a cover will make people aware of the original artist, but I would be surprised if any Jedward fans would be snatching up Blink’s back catalogue just because of this track.

Having said that, I would love to see an Irish teeny bopper’s face the first time she heard Family Reunion (warning, contains rude words).

Monday, June 4, 2012

Checkmate in Charge

I’m not only obsessed with covers. It’s important that you understand that. I would hate to come across as one dimensional so early in our relationship. I have other obsessions as well.

I love most pop culture, but have always particularly loved television. I think that it is (or at least was) a greatly misunderstood medium. People are all too ready to dismiss it as of little value, and even though in recent years (thanks to shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad) it has got some cred, I think that TV in general, and comedy in particular, is still not seen as “important” in the same way that a film or novel are (despite the fact that there are some truly terrible films, and even worse novels).

Quite a few years ago now, a friend who shares my love of TV suggested we start a band. The band’s name (for reasons which don’t really exist) would be “Knee To Groin: Checkmate”, and we would play all covers. But not just covers of any songs. No, Kneedagroin (as we would no doubt be known) would exclusively play covers of TV Show themes. Imagine it. You go to a pub. There’s a band setting up in the corner. They plug in, say “1 2, 1 2, 1 2” and before you know it they rip into a ball tearing version the the theme from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It was a perfect scenario.

When thinking of songs we would do, one that was at the top of both our lists was this classic from 1984:

It was an incredibly cheesy show, with an incredibly catchy theme song, whose only reason to exist was to keep Scott “Chachi” Baio on our screens, which was reason enough to love it.

There are 2 things, which happened somewhat simultaneously, which ensured that Knee To Groin: Checkmate never saw the light of day. One was that our bass playing friend suggested an even stranger idea for a band (which, in turn, we started) and the second and more compelling reason was that the TV Show Scrubs had basically the same idea at the same time. Their in-show a capella group “The Blanks” performed a few songs, including this version of the above theme.

We agreed that not only had the TV show cover-band idea been “done” but more importantly the definitive cover of the Charles in Charge theme now existed. There was no way we could top this, nor would we want to try.

Sometimes a cover comes along that is quite different in style from the original, and yet shows a reverence and an understanding of where the original is coming from. I will explore this concept further in a later post, but I wanted to show that this sitcom, in paying homage to an earlier one, has achieved that goal where many “real” acts have tried an failed.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The power of One

As you might guess from the title, today's theme is prejudice, and about overcoming it against the odds. The cover in question is by one of my favourite bands who were covering, at the time, one of my least favourite bands.

Achtung Baby was released in 1991 and heralded a new era for U2. The first single, The Fly, was dripping in vocal effects and synths. It marked a departure from their previous work and was part of a much bigger re-imagining of the band. 80s U2 were a rockband with a message. 90s U2 were a stadium pop band with a keyboard.

I hated it.

Don't get me wrong, it's not because I had such respect for their 80s music - I didn't. I thought they were just a bunch of political tossers with too heavy reliance on 3 chords and a delay pedal. But I hated their "new" stuff because it was so pretentious. The Zoo TV Tour, a stadium tour attacking commercialism, was basically taking the piss out of the people who had paid money to see it, and I hope the people in the first few rows were issued raincoats to protect themselves from the wank spurting from the stage.

So by the time their third single One came out, I inevitably hated it too. Although, musically and stylistically, it was more Joshua Tree than Zooropa, and although it used a whole five chords, I still hated it. I hated it for Bono more than Edge, though. I remember picking up on the line "are you trying to play Jesus to the lepers in your head". I mean really. Was that supposed to be deep or something? I knew their little fan boys and girls would be lapping it up, and couldn't they just see how pathetic it all was, really? Fanboys can be so blind.

1991 also heralded a fairly new era, musically, for me. I was just starting to get into some bands that would stay with me for the rest of my life (so far, at least). In particular, R.E.M. caught my attention. Out of Time, their biggest album by far, was released and topped both pop and alternative charts, pretty much causing the death of the newly coined concept of "alternative". I'd love to say I was into R.E.M. from their early days, but I wasn't. I had heard Orange Crush, but was otherwise pretty much completely unaware of them. That changed very rapidly though, and by the end of 91 I was well versed in the entire back catalogue.

So that was me in 91. Hating on U2 and loving REM.

Many years later, around 1999 or 2000, I was searching on Napster for "<band name> cover" (feeding my addiction) and found a file called "One REM U2 cover". I downloaded it to see how my beloved and irreverent REM would treat this overly self important song. And then Stipe's vocals started and I was mesmerised.

Stipe treats the lyrics with his usual abandon. Not through contempt, just due to his completely terrible memory. He mixes up the lines so that they don't rhyme and any semblance of sense is completely lost. But he sings it with such conviction that I immediately fell in love with it. I remember picking up the guitar, wanting to learn how to play it simply because I loved it so much.

What I didn't find out till much later, when I saw the video on youtube, that this was only 2 members of REM. The rhythm section of this "cover" was being provided by Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton from U2. (Incidentally I wonder if Clayton pulled Mike Mills aside and said "sure, you're a good bass player, but you'll never be great unless you start wearing stupid suits." The song was performed/record in 1993, and it was around that time the Mills started wearing stupid suits of his own.)
So this put me in a great quandary. A song I hate, covered by a band that I love. Not only that, but I  like the cover. Even the "lepers" lyric is left, miraculously under the circumstances, untouched and it doesn't grate. How does that affect my feelings for the original? Should it?

The fact is, it did. By removing my irrational hatred of U2, and replacing it with my irrational love of REM, I gave the song itself (rather than any specific version) a second chance. I prefer the REM version, simply because I love Stipe's vocals, but I quite like the U2 One. Basically, I can listen to either version and really like it. My prejudices cancelled each other out.


It's still a stupid lyric, though.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A welcoming kiss

Welcome to my new blog.

Here I will be exploring the cover version, looking at specific ones, and talking about covers in general. I'm hoping to come to an understanding of why I have a mild obsession with covers, what makes a good one, and what makes a bad one.

I'm going to start with a song that, when I first heard it, I didn't actually realise was a cover.

In 1988 The Art of Noise recruited Tom Jones to do the vocals for their cover of Prince's Kiss. Although we didn't realise it at the time, it was the dawn of a new era for Tom and he was going to spend the next few years wearing black and being sexy to people half his age.

The song itself is odd, and I think I thought that at the time. I knew nothing of the Art of Noise then but the track is full of 80s samples, synths and sounds that typified their style. It came from the same era as Mello's Oh Yeah, and it sounds like it. There is so much going on, musically. If your ears could blink you would ask them not to, for fear of missing something.

It was Tom Jones, though, that brought Art of Noise into the charts. His voice is amazing, his expression throughout the clip (as if he's going to start pissing himself laughing at any time) and the fact that he was SO OLD and yet still singing about sex (but not in a creepy Tina Turner way - really if I paid for a private dancer and got that, I would be asking for a refund) was all combined to make a song that, in its own right, was fantastic.

I had heard of Prince, obviously, but I didn't realise that Kiss was a cover. I remember hearing Prince's version for the first time, on a crappy little tape deck in the computer room of my friend Budge's house. I laughed so hard. I couldn't believe that that pathetic and pissy little song actually came before the bombastic, and obviously superior version that Tom sang.

Everything about this song is ridiculous. The falsetto voice. The wimpy guitar. The empty arrangement. The whole disconess of it all. And the clip, with the tiny little man and his cute little high heel boots and crop top. The scrawny little body stripped to the waist. Singing about being sexy, of all things! I mean really, you could have someone's eye out with one of those elbows (if only he could reach that high).

And yet, unlike Tom, Prince seems to take this all incredibly seriously.He does have the odd grin and "wacky" expression, but you otherwise get the impression that it is very important to him that his woman act her age, not her shoe size, because if they don't do the twirl THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES.

But, if you follow the links and read the YouTube comments, there are Prince fans out there who love his version. It is, after all, the original.
And this brings me to my first observation. Not only do we like what we know, we tend to immediately kick back against anything that is different from the familiar. Not only did I hear the Tom Jones/Art of Noise version of Kiss first, I wasn't aware there even was another version. Had I heard the Prince version first I might have preferred it. I might look at the AoN version as some kind of sacrilege.

But I didn't and I don't. And while I obviously can't say that Prince's is, as it came first, I can (and will) say it's a good try, and an adequate first draft. And without it we never would have had the fantastic image of Tom Jones zipping up his fly.